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Your own little piece of the cloud

Last week saw the Microsoft Inspire 2020 conference take place, albeit in very different circumstances to previous years thanks to the fully digital format. Despite the brief disappointment that it wouldn’t involve a trip to the States to check out the latest news, it did give the attendees a much easier way to engage with some of the 500+ sessions presented by Microsoft over the course of two days. 

Among the usual raft of improvements and better integration between existing Azure solutions on show, one of the more interesting announcements was actually a re-launch of a lesser-known product called Azure Stack HCI. This product has flown quietly under the radar for a while, and began life as a spin-off of Windows Server 2019 but has since been re-written from the ground up as a brand new operating system based on the latest Azure Hypervisor, with a dedicated feature set that takes advantage of native integration with the Azure platform.

So what is Azure Stack HCI?

Microsoft provides a good video summary here, but in a nutshell, you can think of the product as a standalone Hyper-V cluster in a box, plumbed directly into Microsoft’s Azure platform. That’s underselling it really, but in principal Azure Stack HCI allows you to run VM workloads on-premise with the benefit of Azure’s management tools and services that are typically reserved for workloads in the cloud. As fantastic as the Azure platform is, not every workload is suitable for running in the cloud – if you have branch offices with poor bandwidth, high performance input/output or latency requirements locally (e.g. remote desktop services (RDS)/virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)), data sovereignty concerns/regulations that require you to hold information on-premise, or even just an ageing Hyper-V infrastructure that’s due a refresh, it’s probably worth taking a look at Azure Stack HCI as it moves from preview to general availability in September 2020.

HCI is short for Hyper-Converged Infrastructure, which takes server virtualisation one step further into the host, allowing you to take a physical system full of disks and networking ports, drop it into a datacentre or remote branch and configure it quickly and easily as part of a resilient cluster of nodes utilising Storage Space Direct and Software Defined Networking. This isn’t limited to a single location either - one of the newly announced features is the ability to ‘stretch’ the 2-16 node cluster across physical sites, allowing you to deploy DR-resilient workloads across your organisation.

Why not just use Windows Server Hyper-V host?

It’s a valid question, and it probably depends on what the rest of your estate looks like and your licensing model. Microsoft are touting a number of key benefits over traditional Windows Server:

Management: If you already have or are planning to have services deployed in Azure, an Azure Stack HCI installation simply shows as another resource type in your tenant and can be managed alongside your other infrastructure from the same portal.  A key part of the new operating system is native low level integration of Azure ARC, bringing your on-prem server deployments into the fabled ‘single pane of glass’ for easier management, and allows application of Azure features such ARM templates, Azure Backup, Azure Security Centre, etc. Updates to the host OS are also handled seamlessly by Microsoft as part of the Azure platform, so there are no patching or maintenance headaches to worry about.

Cost: While we don’t have final pricing information available just yet, instead of the traditional licensing model for an operating system Azure Stack HCI is billed as just another monthly resource as part of your Azure tenant, so no long-term licensing commitments are required.  The hardware of course still needs to be purchased to run the OS, but the presentations at Inspire 2020 suggested that an Azure Stack HCI multi-node cluster could be deployed for less than a traditional design of similar performance, as it doesn’t require the traditional dedicated switching or SAN hardware. Also, instead of limiting the product to a small selection of pre-approved vendor appliances, one of the other big changes announced is that you can install Azure Stack HCI on your own server hardware as long as the components meet the compatibility list. This would further enhance the value proposition for those looking to refresh existing server estates or consolidate multiple hosts onto a single scalable replacement.

Performance: The other aspect discussed in the presentations was that of high-performance virtualised workloads. Azure Stack HCI has been billed as providing “industry-leading performance for SQL Server databases and other performance-sensitive virtualised workloads requiring millions of storage IOPS or database transactions per second”, thanks to the highly optimized Software Defined Networking & Storage technologies that Microsoft have baked into this OS.  It sounds as though SQL, Exchange and VDI among others could be perfect candidates for moving from soon-to-be-retired hosts into a state of the art, modern datacentre platform.

So, there we have it, a quick run through of the features announced for the Azure Stack HCI refresh. It certainly sounds like the product is going to be well-suited to a whole range of applications in all kinds of business configurations. Not only does it provide a best-in-class infrastructure stack, deploying seamlessly into an existing on-premises environment to deliver high performance workloads, it’s also delivered as an Azure hybrid service with native integration into your Azure tenant, management and configuration tools, and subscription-based billing.

About the author

Andrew Fox - Operations Infrastructure Analyst

"I’ve worked at TSG for the last 8 years, currently as an Infrastructure Analyst for our internal Operations team and part of my job is to ensure we are taking advantage of new technologies and platforms in order to provide the best possible service to our customers. Having worked in IT for nearly 20 years now, the one thing that continues to be impressive is the rate of progress in the industry - the continuous flow of new ideas and technology every year has always kept things interesting for me throughout my career.”

Find out more about the key insights Andrew and the rest of our expert panel took from Microsoft Inspire in our day 1 and day 2 review sessions.